For 50 years, the Israeli public has identified religious Zionists as settlers in the West Bank. The justified reason for this is that they themselves identify as such. Many of them are indeed settlers or support settlement in the territories. The political and spiritual elite of this group, whose men wear crocheted – as opposed to cloth – skullcaps, has put settlement at the top of its agenda since the Six-Day War in 1967. From that time, the Gush Emunim movement has infected generations of religious youths with revolutionary fervor, which can be fulfilled here and now in the hills of the West Bank.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and especially the national wound that opened after the Six-Day War, led to identifying the wearers of crocheted kippot as agents of the Greater Land of Israel – a controversial concept in Israeli society. In recent years, some people view them through the ethnic divide, where they are perceived as the privileged Ashkenazi or European representatives of “the first Israel,” or through the struggle for the Israeli public sphere, where they are perceived as the perpetrators of religious coercion.
The conflicts between the “tribes” in Israel and between the Israelis and the Palestinians are important and real, and religious Zionists do have a role in them. However, it is not possible to understand them through these lenses. It’s an obsolete point of view blind to a tremendous drama that is going on among the religious Zionists – and the fissures within the group. This fragmentation, for the most part, is not political but rather religious and cultural.
A large number of ideological, ethical and rabbinical-legal debates are splitting the camp, and these have to do with civic rather than political life. Before our very eyes, a number of different perceptions of religious conservatism are arising – all of them committed to Torah and the commandments, but each in its own way. These perceptions are being shaped by the religious Zionists’ alignment with the right wing – that is, in the context of the existence of a conservative-rightist consensus regarding the Palestinians, the settlements, the judicial system and the economy.
It’s impossible to understand Israeli society without the religious component and certainly it is not possible to understand religious Zionist society without it. However, even serious authors and journalists who stand guard over Israeli society tend to miss seeing the Jewish experience that is central to every religious Zionist person, and underestimate or reduce it to a story about power. Identity, faith, rabbinical law, Yiddishkeit, the attitude toward the outside world and its values – all the components that define the relationships within the religious camp and between it and the modern world – are entirely absent from the discourse about religious Zionist society.
More than extremism or moderation, the main force that is affecting religious Zionism is privatization. Privatization becomes a revolution when along with talk and ideas, it is also manifested in the practical world of worshipping God: in prayers, in the way people marry or consume kosher food, in the way women submerge themselves in ritual baths after their menstrual periods are over so they can renew intimate relations with their husbands, and in other matters of rabbinical law.
Concepts like competition, individual initiative, freedom of choice and self-definition and even equality are now bursting into the religious world. In a privatized world, every religious group defines the boundaries of religious law for itself, and these are diverse and changing. Under the self-definition of “religious” and “Orthodox,” there are now more varied behaviors and identities than ever before.